01/24/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Barack's 'Ask Not'

At various moments in history, our leaders define our moment.

And they do so in words that become unique to that moment.

In 1776, Jefferson embraced the Enlightenment ideal that "all men are created equal." What he meant, really, was that all educated, white men were created equal. Slaves and women and the non-propertied class were not included. But it was still a great advance. The Enlightenment's equality of the mind unhinged us from the monarchs, aristocrats, clerics and court jesters who for centuries had held a monopoly on thoughts that mattered, and thus made science and widespread progress possible.

In the 1860s, Lincoln made a nation of what had until then been a collection. He extended the Jeffersonian ideal to the victims of the nation's greatest crime -- slavery -- and set in motion the hundred plus years of cautious progress that ultimately made those victims full citizens. That was the goal of his "government of the people, by the people and for the people."

It too, however, was insufficient.

For Lincoln's vision did not include America's wives or mothers or daughters. Nor did it include -- and couldn't, really, because an assassin's gun deprived us of knowing what the great man would have thought of the corporate capture of his party of emancipation -- the bottom and middle rungs of an economic ladder that industrialism would turn into a Gilded Age of class based exclusion and poverty, and that social Darwinism would turn into the cyclical spectre of economic depression.

And so, in the first and fourth decades of the 20th century, two cousins named Roosevelt would condemn the "malefactors of great wealth" and lay down the foundation for the "four freedoms" -- of speech and worship, and from want and fear. To make real those freedoms from want and fear, FDR would protect labor unions and give us Social Security and President Johnson -- 30 years later -- would create Medicare and the War on Poverty.

But these too failed to create a "more perfect union."

In truth, a "more" perfect union should not be possible. The concept is an oxymoron. Perfection, by definition, cannot itself be "more" perfectible. Nonetheless, here, on a patch of land in the North American temperate zone, circles are squared as we Americans try to temper the arrogance of asserted perfection with the humble admission of need for improvement.

We invent our own logic, however inverted that logic may be.

Which is how we got Reagan.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan warned against Roosevelt's and Johnson's -- and, so he thought, the entire Democratic Party's -- ostensibly unvarnished collectivism. He called government "the problem." He attacked and weakened labor. He made a hero of Calvin Coolidge, the last president to preside over a nation of splendiferous wealth, and promoted a culture that spawned Buffett and Gates (but also Milken and Madoff) and thousands like them over the next 30 years. He won the White House, and the Senate, and then unleashed a second Gilded Age. Wealth was less regulated, less taxed, and way more concentrated, than at any time since the 1920s. In truth, he created the 1 percent.

And made us all think we could get there.

This was the Age of Reagan.

It ended in the fall of 2008 with George W. Bush's lesser depression. "W" made no bones about being Reagan's heir. He sought to deregulate and privatize at home while claiming to export freedom at the end of an American gun abroad. By November 2008, it had all come crashing down. The nation, it turned out, could become a ...

Less perfect union as well.

Along the way, a skinny guy with a scary middle name wowed us with a keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He was smart, eloquent... and black. Four years later, we entered the Age of Obama. He is only the second person in the history of the United States to become president on the strength of his oratory; the first was Abraham Lincoln. And so, like Lincoln, what matters most are often...

His words.

President Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term on Sunday and re-took the oath as part of the public inauguration on Monday.

He then gave his second Inaugural Address.

The speech was exceptional. Only he could have given it and, arguably, only it was appropriate to the moment we now face, one where the enormity of our challenges is met by the polarizing partisanship of our politics. It is unlikely to be equaled any time soon. It was, therefore, a veritable tour de force.

The speech summoned a citizenry to action. In fact, its unifying theme was that republican (small "r") responsibility creates the obligation of citizen action. At both the beginning and the end of this unique Inaugural Address, Barack Obama made that framework clear.

Like every president before him, Obama embraced Jefferson's "self evident" truths -- that "all men are created equal" and are "endowed" with those heralded "inalienable rights" of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But he then became the first president to tell us that "while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing." In the same breath, he warned that "while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth." And at the end, this call to citizen action was re-stated. All of us, he said, have an obligation -- "as citizens" -- "to shape the debates of our times -- not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals."

Back in the summer, in Charlotte during his speech accepting the Democratic nomination, Obama had told us that the coming campaign would not be about him. Pundits scoffed at his supposed false humility. But it wasn't false at all. The campaign, the government he envisioned, was not about him. He can't give us the government we want.

But we can.

And Monday, in his second Inaugural, he told us how.

Vote? Certainly, and he might well have added: "not just in presidential years." But most importantly, his call to citizen action was a call to...

Raise your voice.

If you want to make schools safe and eliminate as possibilities the horrors of Newtown, you must raise your voice and stand up to the NRA. If you want to secure those freedoms from want and fear, you must raise your voice and reject a rhetoric that turns Medicare and Social Security into entitlements for takers rather than security for hard workers. If you want to begin to confront the challenge of climate change before it is too late, you have to raise your voice against deniers of science. If you believe all are created equal, you must raise your voice in support of marriage equality for gays and pay equality for women. And if you want to sustain a middle class, you must raise your voice and stand with those who would regulate Wall Street and stimulate the demand to employ Main Street.

Gridlock, of course, is still a problem. And Obama cannot solve that problem by himself either. He can't turn partisanship into progress, or extremism into reason, or racism into tolerance. But if, in raising our voices, we do not "mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name calling as reasoned debate," we can.

In his only Inaugural Address, President Kennedy issued his famous challenge: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." In his second Inaugural, Barack Obama told anyone who accepted Kennedy's challenge exactly what they could "do."

Be a citizen.

Raise your voice.

Every day.

Not just on Election Day.